Attending an Alexander McQueen fashion show was like taking a stroll through a fashion Fallujah. There was always this magnificent sense of impending catastrophe. Would the gals get electrocuted as they sloshed through all that water? How will the models, in their Blade Runner–inspired, condom-tight dresses, navigate those treacherous glass stairs?
I remember one show in particular: The location was a functioning Parisian abattoir. Wearing giant “thatched cottage” wigs, the gals careened across apparently blood- and poo-stained cobblestones, their heels snapping off hither and thither. Misogynist? In fact, Mr. McQueen’s life was more about torturing himself than inflicting pain on highly paid runway chippies.
Alexander McQueen started out as a Savile Row apprentice. Traditional suitings were a big influence on his subsequent oeuvre. He famously tailored a fantastic coat for David Bowie’s Earthling tour. The design said so much about Alexander. It was a historical garment—sort of like an old footman’s coat—cut from a sacred symbol, the flag of the British Empire. Upon completion, Mr. McQueen assaulted it, burned it and did God knows what else to it.
After his tour had finished, Mr. Bowie kindly loaned me this distressed coat-of-many-slashes for a Brit-themed Barneys window. The year was 1997—remember that whole Cool Brittania moment?—and this particular display was packed with eccentric tchotchkes evoking the land of my birth. The back wall consisted of a portrait gallery titled the Great Queens of England: Victoria plus Elizabeths 1 and 11 rubbing shoulders with Boy George, Manolo Blahnik, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.
Even though Alexander was the new kid on the block, he had already established himself as an influential provocateur in the tradition of Vivienne Westwood. He had invented, among other things, the “bumster” pant, which ultimately spawned the ubiquitous butt-crack jean. I had never met him but assumed he was as bold and ballsy as his creativity would suggest.
Alexander happened to make a trip to New York at the time the window was installed. I ran into him at an event, which he attended with his beloved mum, Joyce, on his arm. (Her death, three days before his, is viewed by many as the main trigger for his suicide.) I asked him if he had seen the window. Knowing that he was an East End working-class lad, the son of a taxi driver, I expected a little cheeky badinage, a cocky Cockney riposte. Alexander surprised me by quietly voicing genuine concern that, as happy as he was to see his coat on display, the portrait had made him look fatter than he was. Instead of the punk-rock provocateur, I saw the vulnerable kid who had been bullied at school and called McQueer.
Growing up gay in working-class Britain, regardless of how loving your immediate family might be, is no bloody picnic. Having been there myself and subsequently escaped to a land where it’s O.K. to go to a therapist and attempt to unravel your early guilt/shame macrame, I know whereof I speak. Counteracting the homophobic drumbeat that forms the sound track to such a childhood is a meshuggeneh lifetime project.
In addition to all the gay stuff, Alexander McQueen’s psyche was further tormented by the British class system. He was drawn to the pageantry and the toffs (aristo Isabella Blow, who also committed suicide, was his muse) but repelled by their assumed superiority. (While finishing up a bespoke jacket for Prince Charles, he famously stitched a label that read “I’m a cunt” into the lining.) Et voilà! A young bloke compelled to leave the macho of the East End for the safety and magic of the effete fashion milieu, living it, loving it and loathing it all at the same time.
The creative rage, soaring imagination and intense curiosity that Mr. McQueen exhibited throughout his career was a function of the painful contradictions listed above. To my amateur Freudian gaze, his suicide by hanging reads like an act of self-administered capital punishment, a punishment for crimes that the poor, complex, sensitive lad never committed in the first place.
Watching this season’s New York shows with the McQueen tragedy playing in my head is a surreal experience. Where is that explosive, rage-filled creativity today? Where is the torment and drama? It is simply not there. The comfy high self-esteem currently enjoyed by today’s emerging designers does not produce that kind of fabulous madness. They are simply too happy and too well adjusted to shock or to produce great art.